The newest Musketeers: a foursome tailored to the thirtysomething audience

November 13, 1993|By Malcolm L. Johnson | Malcolm L. Johnson,Hartford Courant

Back in 1948, a dazzlingly athletic Gene Kelly bounced again and again into the air from his perch atop a park monument while a forgotten extra, playing one of the cardinal's minions, slashed haplessly at the laughing D'Artagnan.

For kids born in the late '30s or early '40s, this was clearly the definitive film version of "The Three Musketeers." Today, the luster of the glossy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer color film, and its director, George Sidney, has dimmed. But the cast remains one to reckon with: Van Heflin as the somber Athos, Lana Turner as the scheming Lady de Winter, Angela Lansbury as the faithless queen, Frank Morgan as the befuddled king, Robert Coote as Aramis, Gig Young as Porthos, Keenan Wynn as Planchet, Vincent Price as Cardinal Richelieu. Then, of course, there was perky, breathless June Allyson as D'Artagnan's doomed love, Constance.

The fathers of the kids in those postwar years, when Hollywood was still king and Mr. Kelly had a great decade ahead of him, had their own D'Artagnan, of course: none other than the legendary Douglas Fairbanks, the very soul of swashbuckling.

Where Mr. Kelly distinguished himself with his playful prancing atop a garden monument, Fairbanks performed a seemingly impossible feat: Spotting a downed fiend in the cardinal's command aiming a pistol at one of the great three, D'Artagnan/Fairbanks executes a miraculous one-hand handstand -- on a poniard yet -- and stabs the dastard dead.

Every generation must have a version of the Dumas favorite to call its own, and thus the kids of today have the new Walt Disney version of "The Three Musketeers."

With Chris O'Donnell as a very boyish D'Artagnan, this is clearly a treatment of Dumas thrust at the youth market. Kiefer Sutherland, also still in the first blush of post-adolescence, is the Athos, and Charlie Sheen is the former churchman, the effete Aramis.

Oliver Platt has one of his most plummy roles as the hard-drinking Porthos, seen in the trailers choosing red wine over champagne as the right beverage for a mad chase. Rebecca De Mornay, still looking discomfitingly like Hillary Rodham Clinton, even in period gowns, returns to her nanny villainies as Lady de Winter, and that master of smug nastiness, Tim Curry, is the hated Richelieu.

Whatever sentimental fondness one might work up for the Kelly-Sidney "Musketeers" or for the FairBanks version directed by the redoubtable Fed Niblo (which unhappily is still not available on tape or disc), most movie lovers of any generation have to admit the best of the film versions was the 1974 Richard Lester account of Dumas, with its superb cast, its mix of broad Lester slapstick and the sophistication of the screenplay by George Macdonald Fraser.

A brash and initially hickish Michael York shone his brightest as D'Artagnan, Richard Chamberlain preened as an elegant Aramis, and Oliver Reed, before his fall from grace, made a brooding, dangerous, ultimately tragic Athos. Frank Finlay contributed his own derring-do humors as Porthos. Faye Dunaway displayed feral smiles as a splendidly wicked Milady, and Charlton Heston gave one of his most finely measured performances as the cardinal. The only problem came with Lester's jokey handling of Raquel Welch as poor Constance.

But the director used a considerable budget to create a great sense of period, working with a cast that made two movies for the price of one -- though "The Four Musketeers," which finished the story, proved much less fun than its predecessor.

Though the Fairbanks, Kelly and York D'Artagnans remain the most admired, there have been many others -- going back all the way to the Thomas Edison version in 1911. Walter Abel played a rather sober D'Artagnan in the first sound version in 1935, and four years later, Don Ameche compensated as a musical D'Artagnan, with the Ritz Brothers as lackeys impersonating musketeers. There have been numerous spin-offs, most notably the 1952 "At Sword's Point," with Maureen O'Hara and Cornel Wilde as two of the musketeers' children.

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